The daily need for cloth, shelter, bread, water and air is well known truth of entire human race. One can afford to skip a meal, live under the tree for days and can manage with any type of cloth but to skip a breath is hardly impossible. That is why many scriptures on Yoga explain, “Breath is Life.” The normal day to day experience reveals that this breath can be delayed for a while or even for a longer period in case of Yoga masters but can not be stopped all together. Yoga Scriptures declare that this movement of breathing in and breathing out is much more than gaseous exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Therefore, it is important to know deeply and clearly about the breath, respiration and Vital force and Prāṇa in order to regulate life towards health, harmony and happiness. Prāṇāyāma practice had been practiced by Indians for thousands of years as the knowledge was passed through word to mouth by great Yoga masters. The ancient masters realized the powers behind Prāṇāyāma practice so much so that it had been incorporated into almost every rites and rituals of Indians. The tradition still continues as one or other forms of Prāṇāyāma is practiced by Priests during birth, marriage, death and other auspicious ceremonies. Prāṇāyāma is one of the most important practices of Hatha Yoga, Patañjali Yoga Sūtra and Tantra. Both Hatha and Patañjali Yoga Sūtra suggest the practice of Prāṇāyāma after the practitioner perfects in asanas. Prāṇāyāma is the fourth aspect of Aṣṭāṅga or eight part Yoga of Patañjali Yoga Sūtra.
What is Prāṇa?
“Pra” = first unit and “ana” = energy. Prāṇa literally means first unit of energy. Prāṇa is the vital energy of Universe. Prāṇa or the vital force is all pervading. There is not a single object in the Universe that is devoid of Prāṇa. The Prāṇa may be defined as the finest vital force in everything which becomes visible on the physical plane as motion and action and on the mental plane as thought and feelings.
Pranasyedam vashe sarvam tridiveyat pratishtitam
Mateva putran rakshasva srishcha prajnan cha videhi na iti
All that exists in all the three worlds is under the governance of Prana. O Prana, (please) protect us, your children as mother and grant us the (real) wealth and wisdom. (Prashna Upanishad – 2.13) This is the most comprehensive definition of Prana found in Upanishads and Yoga lore. Prāṇa is that by which living force is alive. Atharveda says Prāṇa is universal, inspiration of all actions and witness of every thing. That’s why Prāṇa is worshipped. Prāṇa is Sun and Moon and protector of all lives and existence.
Bṛhadāraṇyakopaniṣad declares Prāṇa is force, nectar and age. Another Upaniṣad, Taittariyopaniṣad confirms that all living beings are produced and nourished by Prāṇa and enters into Prāṇa after death.
Prāṇa may be roughly translated as “unit of energy”. Whatever moves, changes carry this energy. Therefore, Prāṇa is present in one or the other form in everything in the universe. The regulation of this subtle energy by the practice of Prāṇāyāma can also help the practitioner to know the movements of Prāṇa in animate and inanimate things of the universe.
The origin of Prāṇa
In the creation of the body Prāṇa first evolves as mind in the brain, Ākāsha in region of throat, air in the region of heart, fire in the region of naval, water in the region of testes and earth in the region of mūladhāra. In the end, Prāṇa lives in its dynamic aspect at Mūladhāra Chakra and controls, regulates all the functions of the body. It works from Mūladhāra. It stores and preserves the energy and also distributes the same throughout the body for various activities of the body and the mind.
Breath, Respiration and Prāṇa
Breath is the vehicle of Prāṇa. The rate and rhythm of breathing also influences the Prāṇa that is bridge between body and mind. Body influences the mind through the change in the flow of Prāṇa and vice–versa that means that the rate and rhythm of breathing has an over all influence over body (food sheath) or “Annamaya Kośa” mind (Mental sheath) or “Manomaya Kośa” and Prāṇa or “Prāṇamaya Kośa”. So, man is not only despondent upon correct breathing but also he is greatly dependent upon correct breathing for continued vitality, strength and freedom from unwanted desires, thoughts, feelings, past impressions etc. as it develops awareness of Prāṇa and its flow. Breath is different from Prāṇa, however, there is a close connection between the two. By controlling and regulating the breathing, Prāṇa can be controlled and mastered is the aim of Prāṇāyāma. The control of Prāṇa enables the Yogi to control the mind. Mind moves in the direction of desire, fancies, and imagination but when Prāṇa is controlled mind leaves the desire and changes its direction towards the source. Hatha Yoga Pradīpikā (2.2) says if Prāṇa get disturbed, so the effect with mind. By controlling the Prāṇa, the Yogi can attain the steadiness of his mind.
There is a centre at the posterior part of the brain, responsible for activating muscles that cause inspiration and expiration. That centre controls the breathing. In other words, brain controls breathing and breathing also controls the brain and its functioning’s along with mind because brain is the vehicle of mind. Heaviness in the brain is felt if breathing is irregular, haphazard and lightness is felt if breathing is smooth, deep, silent and slow. Breathing rate is faster when one is agitated, excited or angry and the rate is slower when one is quite, calm and relaxed. As such brain plays an important role in the proper functioning of the body and mind and their activities needs constant and appropriate supply of oxygen and that is possible only by the practice of conscious correct breathing. The rate and rhythm of breathing influences the behaviour of an individual. If the rate is faster per minute as in the case of hen (30 breaths/minute), duck (20 breaths/minute), dog (28 breaths/minute) horse (16 breaths/minute) the more excitable the creature is. The rate of breathing/ minute of a normal human beings having fluctuations in the mind and average successful in the materialistic world is around 12-20 breaths/minute. The individual in the world always meets stress and strain of one kind or the other almost every day so the breathing rate has the tendency of increasing. The science of Yoga advises an individual to decrease the breathing rate indirectly by the practice of Prāṇāyāma that enables him to influence the brain and its functioning that leads to the control of mind. It also postpones the degenerating processes and increases the life-span of an individual.
Prāṇāyāma in Traditional Scriptures
Prāṇāyāma is the fourth aspect of Ashtanga Yoga after the Āsana which regulates the Prāṇa or the Vital force.
Tasmin sati śvāsa-praśvāsayorgativicchedah prāṇāyāmah
Tasmin = in this
Sati = existing
Śvāsa = inhalation
Praśvāsayor = exhalation
Gati = flow
vicchedah = cessation, interruption
Prānāyāmah = breath regulation
With effort relaxing, the flow of inhalation and exhalation can be brought to a standstill; this is called prāṇāyāma.
According to Patañjali – This having been accomplished Prāṇāyāma which is cessation of inhalation and exhalation or interruption between inhalation and exhalation).
“Thus, having accomplished” refers to Āsana. The practice of Prāṇāyāma cannot be undertaken until and unless one of the sitting Āsanas (in which spine and head is straight) is mastered. Āsana is a poised and relaxed manner of sitting which avoids any wastage of energy, muscular movement, another significance of mastering over Āsana is that breath becomes slow and rhythmic. Retention also occurs for short intervals automatically. Actually one cannot practice Prāṇāyāma if the Āsana is not mastered because any muscular stretch or tension or movement of the body would change the rate and rhythm of breathing and thus will destroy the entire purpose of Prāṇāyāma.
Which means interruption or cessation or interval between inhalation and exhalation? This interruption in the acts of inhalation and exhalation usually occurs at least 15 times per minute if the rate of breathing per minute is 15. This cessation or interval is for couple of seconds but this does not mean that we are practicing Prāṇāyāma all the time as we are not conscious of this interval and the rate of breathing is dependent upon the mental status of man which changes every moment. Also the deep breathing, Yogic breathing, alternate breathing are not Prāṇāyāma but all these processes vitalize the body, mind and brain and brings the practitioner closes to what is actual practice of Prāṇāyāma. The process of breathing is under the direct influence of the autonomic nervous system, which is not easily controlled by one’s own will and wish. However, by the practice of Prāṇāyāma the breathing process is brought under conscious control and in turn autonomic nervous system also comes under awareness.
Autonomic nervous system has two divisions’ viz. parasympathetic nervous system and sympathetic nervous system. The action of these two divisions are opposite in nature. Yet, the result is harmonious regulation of the bodily functions including the breathing. Sympathetic nervous system increases the rate of breathing and alters its rhythm. But emotional, mental and physical states influence the breathing and alter the rate of breathing unconsciously. This along with other factors/ conditions the breathing which we do not know till death and responsible for many physical maladies, mental disturbances and psychosomatic disorders.
Prāṇāyāma regulates the breathing consciously by regulating the lungs that in turn regulates the heart rate, the nerve which is connected to brain at one end and the abdomen, chest and all the chakras from the other, also controls that portion of the mind. The net result is awareness of autonomic nervous system.
There are three important Nādīs viz. Ida, Pingla and Suṣumnā among 72000 Nādīs (Some say 3050000) spread throughout the body in the subtle body and are responsible for the flow of Prāṇa. Anatomically, the Ida (Chandra) refers to the left nostril and Piṅgalā (Sūrya) refers to the right nostril. The Suṣumnā is considered to be active when both the nostrils (ida and Piṅgalā) flows equally or equally dominant. The flow of prāṇa through Suṣumnā is essentially important for a Yoga Practitioner. Because the practitioner is not disturbed by any noise, sounds, external factors and obstacles, subconscious or unconscious portions of the mind during meditation, when the Suṣumnā Nādī is active. Suṣumnā is stationed in the spinal column, in between Ida & Piṅgalā. Ida & Piṅgalā crisscross Suṣumnā at six points known as charkas or psychic centers or levels of consciousness. Ida, Piṅgalā and Suṣumnā originate from the Mūladhāra chakra at the base of spine. The Suṣumnā ends in Sahaśrāra but the Ida and Piṅgalā ends in the Ajna Chakra. All these are present in subtle body and Prāṇa flows in them. The seven charkas are Mūladhāra Chakra (at the level of Pelvic Plexus in the Physical body) Swādisthāna Chakra (Hypo gastric plexus), Anāhata (Cardiac plexus), Viśuddha Chakra (Pharyngeal plexus), Ajna (Nasociliary plexus) and Sahaśrāra (at the crown of the head).
In an average individual who leads a normal life on earth, the Prāṇa is responsible for all his activities of life from birth to death. However, only a fraction of prāṇa is being utilized for the normal body functions. This fraction of Prāṇa is the part of that Total PRĀṇA which remains in dormant state or seed form known as Kunḍalinī. Again flow of Ida and Piṅgalā are dominant in an average individual and the Suṣumnā flow is dormant. So Prāṇāyāma is that practice by which Suṣumnā is opened and Ida and Piṅgalā flow are stopped simultaneously. The opening of Suṣumnā also awakens the Kunḍalinī, which ascends while piercing all the charkas that comes in her way and reaches Sahaśrāra. There is the union of universal Śhakti with the universal consciousness or union of Śhakti and Shiva which is the ultimate aim of Yoga aspirant.
Essentials of Practicing Prāṇāyāma
The practice of Prāṇāyāma is vital for body, mind, brain, nervous system and overall health of an individual. One who begins the practice of Prāṇāyāma must do only under the supervision of expert but he must also know the few precautions that will help to overcome the obstacles during practice.
GENERAL BENEFITS OF THE PRACTICE OF THE PRĀNĀYĀMA
General benefits with the practice of the Prāṇāyāma for the Therapeutic and healthcare point of view may be summarized as follows –
- Improvement in the quality of the blood due to its increased oxygenation in the lungs. This aids in the elimination of toxins from the system.
- It increases the digestion and assimilation of food. The digestive organs such as the stomach receive more oxygen, and hence operate more efficiently. The digestion is further enhanced by the fact that the food is oxygenated more.
- Improvement in the health of the nervous system, including the brain, spinal cord, nerve centers and nerves. This is due again to the increased oxygenation and hence nourishment of the nervous system. This improves the health of the whole body, since the nervous system communicates to all parts of the body.
- Rejuvenation of the glands, especially the pituitary and pineal glands. The brain has a special affinity for oxygen, requiring three times more oxygen than does the rest of the body. This has far-reaching effects on our well being.
- Rejuvenation of the skin. The skin becomes smoother and a reduction of facial wrinkles occurs.
- The movements of the diaphragm during the deep breathing exercise massage the abdominal organs – the stomach, small intestine, liver and pancreas. The upper movement of the diaphragm also massages the heart. This stimulates the blood circulation in these organs. The lungs become healthy and powerful, a good insurance against respiratory problems.
- Deep, slow, yoga breathing reduces the work load for the heart. The result is a more efficient, stronger heart that operates better and lasts longer. It also means reduced blood pressure and less heart disease.
- Prāṇāyāma reduce the workload on the heart in two ways. Firstly, deep breathing leads to more efficient lungs, which means more oxygen is brought into contact with blood sent to the lungs by the heart. So, the heart doesn’t have to work as hard to deliver oxygen to the tissues. Secondly, deep breathing leads to a greater pressure differential in the lungs, which leads to an increase in the circulation, thus resting the heart a little.
- Deep, slow breathing assists in the weight control. The extra oxygen burns the fat more efficiently. If one is under weight, the extra oxygen feeds the starving tissues and glands. In other words Yoga tends to produce the ideal weights, low, deep, rhythmic breathing causes a reflex stimulation of the parasympathetic nervous system, which results in a reduction of heart rate and relaxes the muscles. These two factors cause a reflex relaxation of the mind, since the mind and body are very interdependent.
- In addition to this supply of oxygen to the brain cells reduces anxiety levels.